Catholic women in Canada were first organized in the Edmonton Archdiocese in November 1912 to assist with the care and placement of the ever-increasing influx of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. The movement gradually spread to the port cities and other major centres across Canada – to Montreal in 1917, Toronto in1918, Halifax the following year, and then to Ottawa, Sherbrooke, and Saint John, New Brunswick. In 1920, these groups were invited to meet in Montreal to try to establish a national group of Catholic women.
The name “Catholic Women’s League” originated in England in 1912 in response to a perceived need for Catholic lay action and was adopted by the Canadian group. On June 17, 1920, The Catholic Women’s League of Canada was formally established with Miss Bellelle Guerin of Montreal elected first national president. In 1921, the League affiliated with the International Union of Catholic Women, now known as the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO), an affiliation still enjoyed today.
The first annual national convention of The Catholic Women’s League of Canada was held in Toronto in 1921. The delegates at that convention worked hard at producing a constitution, a set of bylaws and the beginnings of a publication, The Canadian League. The League was incorporated federally in 1923.
From its organizational beginnings, as now, the League perceived the need for Catholic lay women’s action in all aspects of Canadian life. The League crest and seal – the cross surmounting the maple leaves with the words “The Catholic Women’s League of Canada – For God and Canada” in the surrounding circle was designed by Mrs. Emmett Mullally.
In 1927, a national scholarship fund was established to assist Catholic women students and, for many years, this was given for graduate studies in social work. Since 1969, however, this fund has been donated to the Coady International Institute of St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, N.S., to assist foreign students from developing countries.
The year 1938 saw the organization of Business & Professional Women’s CWL Councils in major cities across Canada. The organization of the first provincial councils of the League occurred in 1947-48 allowing for provincial action and the lobbying of provincial governments. Fund-raising was to be done at the parish council and the other levels. Diocesan, provincial and national councils would be financed through per capita fees lfrom the parish level.
The CWL was mandated by the Canadian Catholic Conference of the Hierarchy, now the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), in 1948, and was under the patronage of His Eminence James C. Cardinal McGuigan, DD, until his death in 1975. Since 1976, the League has been privileged to be under the special patronage of the CCCB and, in 1992, the League was officially recognized by the CCCB as a lay association of women.
In 1965, the Military Vicariate Council was formed to coordinate the councils established on military bases and was given the status of a provincial council. The name was changed in 1988 to Military Ordinariate Council.
In 1969, the League’s 1% commitment to the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development & Peace (CCODP) was established. Leadership courses were formulated in the 1970s and, for the first time, resolutions passed at national level on the floor of the convention were presented in person by national officers to the prime minister and members of his cabinet. In 1980, Newfoundland joined the League as a provincial council.
The main thrust of The Catholic Women’s League of Canada is, and has always been, the spiritual development of its members, both individually and collectively. The activities of the League, since its original purpose of aiding immigrants, have broadened and, in recent years, the emphasis has been on issues concerning the sanctity of life, social justice, human dignity, the preservation of Christian family life and the concept of a preferential option for the poor.